An isolated house in the country. Chains hanging over a wall’s blood-spattered tiles. Glass jars full of guts, sinews and body tissue. An upset young woman sat at a table, loading a gun. And a female voiceover intoning: “When I was a girl, my mother took a hairpin and pricked the end of my finger. She said, that’s what hell feels like all the time… Six months later she killed herself.” Although the opening of Daddy’s Girl is presented in a disorienting montage of images shown out of chronological sequence, we still have a good idea where we are. This is going to be another of those torture-in-the-basement films that proved so popular in the Noughties, creating a locked-in hell of horrific sadism and corporeal torment. That the woman, Zoe, is played by Jemma Dallender (I Spit On Your Grave 2, 2013) might be regarded as a hint of rape revenge, but when we first see her being mounted in bed by the much older John Stone (Costas Mandylor), there is little to suggest that this sex is non-consensual. Far more disturbing, at this point, is John’s revelation that Zoe’s mother used to be his sexual partner. When Zoe calls John ‘Daddy’, the appellation is more than just lover’s talk.
During the post-9/11 ‘War on Terror’, America’s use of torture, whether contracted out through external rendition, or executed by US military personnel at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, the Bagram Theater Internment Facility in Afghanistan, or the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp in Cuba, provoked a great deal of anxiety and self-examination at home. This gave rise, at least in part, to the Noughties horror subgenre which would become known, for better or for worse, as ‘torture porn’. One of the first torture porn films, Eli Roth’s Hostel (2005), might not at first look as though it is concerned with counter-insurgency in the Middle East and North Africa, but it is rather obviously about American adventurism abroad (of a particularly gauche and insensitive kind) and its unexpected and deeply unpleasant consequences perpetrated on young American bodies, all for the ultimate profit and pleasure of the US ‘élite’. Many subsequent torture porns seemed more focused on their depraved content than on any political subtext it might bring, while a few others – like Simon Rumley’s excellent Red White & Blue (2010) – made all too explicit the links between the acts of torture (and misdirected revenge) that they presented and the dubious conduct of America overseas.
It might seem strange to revisit this somewhat outmoded subgenre now, but as the very title of Daddy’s Girl implies, this latest from Julian Richards (director of The Last Horror Movie, 2003, Summer Scars, 2007 and Shiver, 2012) is concerned not just with patriarchy, but with its legacy, and the passing down of past American sins to the next generation. Former Marine John was part of Desert Storm in 2005, and intimately connected to the activities at Abu Ghraib – and he has brought that predatory spirit back with him to the American heartland. Under John’s thumb since her childhood, Zoe now helps him bait young women in bars to bring back home for his rather specialised form of infernal entertainment, which he tries to tell himself is a reactionary moral crusade. As Deputy Scott Wallace (Jesse Moss) and the drifter Jennifer (Britt McKillip) both circle John, Zoe must make a choice where her true genetic destiny lies.
Though shot in Tbilisi, Georgia with a Brit at the helm, Daddy’s Girl is furnished with the farmhouses, hunting rifles, bear traps and chainsaws that define a very American brand of horror – and to a degree, the film is a critique of a nation still struggling to emerge from Bush’s legacy. “Deep down, you like this as much as I do, don’t you?”, John says to Zoe (and indirectly, to the viewer). Yet Zoe is conflicted, and trapped in her patrimony. She watches, but does not participate in, John’s depravities, and in her own perverted way tries to help his victims. Like Ben Young’s Hounds of Love (2016) and Padraig Reynolds’ Open 24 Hours (2018), Daddy’s Girl is less interested in the loathsome serial killer at its centre than in his victimised, compromised accomplice, reared for bloodlust and forced to pick sides in a nation polarised in its attitudes towards women and their freedoms.
© Anton Bitel